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Official Review by Brian Wilmer, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
If one were to ask others around the country about Charlotte and the sports held dear in the city, basketball and football would garner a lot of guesses. While those sports certainly dominate the landscape in the Queen City, a new revolution is afoot.
A number of non-native Charlotteans now call Metrolina home, and the combination of soccer's popularity in other parts of the country and recent World Cup successes has helped soccer join lacrosse in the battle for the region's coveted sports dollar. In short order, loyal fan bases have formed to welcome both sports to the city.
The brand-new Charlotte Independence are the USL's expansion entry into the Charlotte market. The team currently plays in a temporary facility in south Charlotte, the Ramblewood Soccer Complex. If a team must take up residence in a temporary facility, however, you'll be hard-pressed to find a team make the most of that situation quite like the Charlotte Independence.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The lack of a permanent concession stand may seem to be an impediment to finding good eats or drinks at an Independence game, but fear not. Charlotte is a huge food truck community, and some of their finest roll out to serve hungry and thirsty fans. Any combination of three trucks (Taco King and Bob's Brats for savory tastes, King of Pops for your sweet tooth) make their way onto the premises for each game.
The taco truck features many of the expected items found in any taco truck, including nachos. The nachos are a huge hit with kids of all ages. If a brat is more your speed, the brat truck offers spicy Italian sausages ($5), German brats (also $5) and Angus hot dogs ($3). A number of additional snack options (candy, chips and the like) are also available in the trucks. The trucks only take cash, so either plan accordingly and bring whatever cash you feel you may need, or visit one of the ATMs located on the premises.
For those who are looking to quench their thirst with a non-alcoholic beverage, Coca-Cola products (including water) are your option. If it's something more malted and hoppy you seek, the team has you covered there, too. The beer scene is just as big as the food truck scene in Charlotte, and three of the biggest names in the Queen City have another kind of "pops" on tap. NoDa Brewing, Birdsong Brewing and The Olde Mecklenburg Brewery offer adult beverages for those who are so inclined. They're a bit pricey, sure, but if you're searching for a beer that doesn't proudly advertise its "macro" status, you'll leave happy.
Ramblewood Soccer Complex (and Field 1 located within, which the Independence call home for the time being) may not be a permanent solution for professional soccer in Charlotte. However, it, much like Manchester Meadows 15 miles or so south in Rock Hill, South Carolina, features a well-kept pitch and comfortable facility in which to watch The Beautiful Game.
There is seating essentially all the way around the pitch, with no seat too high of a climb. There is a walking path in front of the seating, which does give the feeling of being a bit further away from the game action. A mixture of bleachers and green plastic seats composes the seating arrangement, and while they'll never be mistaken for the most comfortable thing ever, they serve the purpose. There is standing (or congregating, depending on the corner) room in each corner. There is also another area in which to stand, however.
The Meck Deck is a standing-room-only section on a riser behind the goal opposite the main entrance, and is the home to Jack's Militia (more on them later). The view from this section is among the best you'll find anywhere in the facility, but you'll have to work your way toward the front of the deck to have a clear view of the proceedings.
The easiest -- and virtually only -- way to tell that this stadium is not a permanent fixture is in the scoreboard. The team brings in a rented scoreboard that is nestled in the far corner in front of the Meck Deck, near the press tent (which will eventually be replaced by a press box). The scoreboard was one of the few things that fell victim to the storms on the night we visited, as it did not work for about 20 minutes of the contest.
As soccer is a game with very few breaks, most of the public address announcements and promotions take place while play continues on the field. The advertisements are not intrusive, for the most part, but the promotions can draw your eye away from the pitch a bit. One such promotion, a "pizza scream" contest from local Charlotte restaurant Hawthorne's, does generate a decent amount of fan interest.
Of all the things the Independence can -- and do -- control to make a night out at a match as enjoyable as possible, this one is a bit beyond their realm. The soccer complex is located in a residential area between Westinghouse Boulevard and Interstates 77 and 485, leaving all of the action before and after the match in the parking lot.
The preferred bar of Independence fans, Courtyard Hooligans, is ten miles away from the complex in Charlotte's Uptown district, creating a bit of a logistical issue. Therefore, nearby choices are a bit limited.
The complex is actually closer to the South Carolina state line than center-city Charlotte, so the best suggestion for a sit-down meal, movie or other form of entertainment is likely best found in the area of Carolina Place Mall in nearby Pineville. The mall is roughly 5-10 minutes away, either via local roads (Downs Road) or Interstate 485 (take 485 to exit 64B, NC Highway 51 South). Buca di Beppo, Harper's, Sky Asian Bistro and a vast number of additional dining options await you, and there are several hotel options, should you find yourself traveling to a match.
Alternately, you can take Nations Ford Road south to Westinghouse Boulevard, then turn right and proceed to Interstate 77 southbound. The South Carolina state line is just one mile south, with the Carowinds amusement park and a monstrous Cabela's (if that's your thing) just off exit 90 (US 21), the first exit in South Carolina.
We mentioned Jack's Militia above, and this is a loud and boisterous group. The group shows up wearing their team scarves, playing drums and staying engaged with chants from the minutes before the match all the way through to the final second. Seeing a section of fans so fired up about soccer in Charlotte and wanting to share their experience with others is a great step toward ensuring the sport's success in the city goes a long way.
This does not come without its concerns, though.
On the night we attended, the club was playing Toronto FC2, and the group started the heckling and chants during the Canadian anthem. This led some of the Independence fans not affiliated with the group to scream at them to knock it off and "show some respect." Further, while the group has its own song ("Charlotte, Charlotte / we're the Independence / causing a commotion / can we get promotion?"), there are a number of vulgar chants led by the group throughout the match. This was made all the worse by the fact that several young ball boys are standing to either side of the goal, just feet from the group. If this is a concern to you or your party, accordingly choose your seats.
Here's an example of the group, as they wrap up their song:
The night we attended was not the most heavily-attended of the year; however, a large storm blew through just before the match was slated to begin, causing a lightning and rain delay of nearly an hour. Those who did stay around, though, are a good representation of those who normally attend Independence matches; a hearty, respectful group who loves to root on the home side while teaching others -- or learning from them -- about the game.
Your accessibility experience at Ramblewood Soccer Complex is largely left up to you. If you choose to drive yourself to a match, there are a few items of which to be aware. First, parking costs $5, which is payable via cash or credit to one of the two parking attendants at the end of the entry lane to the park. Once you pay the parking fee, you are led along a narrow lane to a parking lot with a small amount of parking spaces. The lot is tough to navigate, particularly during high-traffic periods, but is also quite convenient. You are never more than just a short walk to your vehicle after a game. Traffic leaving the complex, though -- particularly on a busy night -- can be a bit of a pain, so be prepared for a delay.
The option of taking public transportation also exists. Fans can either go via bus or the Lynx Blue Line light rail to the Sharon Road West station, then take a shuttle for the two-and-a-half-mile ride to the complex. This option allows fans to simply pay for the public transportation pass, as the shuttle is free.
For fans looking to travel via air, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is within minutes of the pitch. It's so close, in fact, that you can hear planes overhead at times during the match. Considering the geographic layout of the USL, this can come in quite handy.
Once inside the complex, movement is largely unrestricted. There are very few steps or impediments to navigate while walking about. Do note, though, that another of the evident features of the temporary nature of the facility lies in the portable restrooms near the main entrance. There are plenty of facilities available for those in need, but may not be the most desirable option.
Much like eveyrthing else at an Independence match, you are largely in charge of your return on investment. Tickets start at a reasonable $9 walk-up rate (for the Meck Deck) or $11 (for the seats behind the opposite goal). If you choose to sit along the sides of the pitch, though, the experience can get a tad expensive. Endline Reserved (the far corners of the seats on either side) cost $20, with Sideline Reserved priced at $25. If you choose the Midfield Club Seats (located exactly where one would think), those are $42.18 apiece. Tickets are processed through Ticketmaster, so if you have any kind of issue with buying through that outlet, it may be worth a try to buy them from the box office before the match.
If all you really want to do is root on the Independence, it can be done relatively cheaply, especially if you sit in the goal seats and take the shuttle from the light rail station. The more expensive seats, though, are probably best left to you to determine your level of commitment .
There is a quite large souvenir tent just inside the stadium entrance. For those looking to purchase almost any form of Independence gear -- literally -- the club has you covered. A wide variety of t-shirts and other apparel is available from the tent at quite reasonable prices.
The club occasionally offers giveaways prior to matches. The giveaways vary by date, so check ahead -- unless you'd just prefer to be surprised.
For those injury-prone little ones -- or even bigger ones -- there is also a first-aid tent sponsored by local provider Novant Health. If you suffer cuts, scrapes or minor injuries, visit the purple tent to get the situation resolved.
Finally, the southern hospitality fans have come to know and expect in the Carolinas is on full display at Independence matches. Everyone from the parking attendants all the way to the truck operators and match operations staff is extremely welcoming. If you have questions, feel assured in knowing you will get a helpful answer with a smile.
Many fans choose to spend their sports dollars at Panthers, Hornets and Knights games, and the Hounds are gaining steam. A new game is in town, however, and though the Independence may be a "young" franchise, they are making waves in the Queen City. If you find yourself being drawn to soccer, you should also find yourself drawn to a night out with the Independence.
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